Child and youth sex tourism is a type of exploitation which seriously violates the fundamental human rights of children, teenagers and young people.

This phenomenon involves turning sexual activities into a tourist attraction, especially when it involves children and teenagers, replacing other tourist attractions such as a region’s environmental or cultural diversity. This problem involves “direct or indirect action from a vast network of travel agencies, tourist guides, hotels, bars, restaurants, beach clubs, petrol stations, waiters, lorry drivers, taxi drivers, brothels and masseuses, as well as the traditional red light districts”.

The researcher Eva Faleiros describes sex tourism as a “sex industry in tourist cities, involving national and foreign tourists, and mainly young women from poor and socially excluded sectors of society and from third world countries. Sex tourism can be run as an independent activity or sold on excursions and package holidays that promise “organised” sexual pleasure. Sex tourism is perhaps the form of exploitation that is most linked to other economic activities, even including the development of tourism”. As child sex tourism is a form of commercial sexual exploitation, it is necessary to understand what exactly is meant by this definition.

According to CECRIA – the Reference, Study and Actions Centre for Children and Adolescents – “commercial sexual exploitation of children is a fundamental violation of children’s rights, which involves sexual abuse by adults and/or payment to a young boy, girl, third person or several third parties. The child is treated like a sex object and a product for sale. Commercial sexual exploitation of children is a form of coercion and violence against children, that may include forced labour and modern forms of slavery”.

A Brief Contextualisation

Tourism really took off as a form of cultural integration and leisure activity after the end of the Second World War, when many countries, having been badly shaken by the war, managed to get back on their feet very quickly and succeeded in boosting their level of international activity. During the 1970s tourism grew with the consolidation of a large European, American and Japanese middle class. The aim of tourism was to discover areas of outstanding natural beauty and cultural intrigue. Because of this, long-haul holidays to third world countries became popular, also due to the lower costs involved.

As tourism intensified a few contradictions arose, for example instead of searching for areas of natural beauty, sex tourism became the main motive for some people when choosing a holiday destination. The majority of this sex tourism began to involve exploitation and often children and adolescents. The 1970s were significant in terms of the discussion of and the visibility of this strange form of tourism which commercialises the bodies of children and adolescents. Initially the urgency of finding a solution to prevent this phenomenon became clear in Asia and it then established itself also in South America, where the intensity of the problem has been growing ever since the 1980s and 1990s. It is in this context that Brazil now finds itself, in the middle of this very serious issue.

It must be pointed out that sexual exploitation for commercial gain and the sexual abuse of children and teenagers has been occurring throughout history. However what differed then was that the topic was not really heard in conversation and the level of social tolerance was different, and so too the amount of attention that society paid to solving the problem. This issue is now more apparent and more discussed because society began to demand that children’s human rights be respected and that child sex tourism be eradicated.

In Brazil

Tourism came onto the public agenda in Brazil in 1966 when EMBRATUR (the Brazilian Tourist Board) was created, which was responsible for boosting the country’s tourism industry. There followed the adoption of public policies that identified tourism as an important source of income. Therefore, these policies’ main aims were to publicise and promote Brazil as an attractive holiday destination, in order to create stable conditions for this new market.

The wording used in the national publicity campaigns created a world-wide image of Brazil as a big tourist attraction with a landscape of natural paradises, good hospitality, beautiful (mainly black or mixed-race) women, and the buzzing party atmosphere of Carnival. Even though nowadays the wording is more multifaceted, there is still a certain predominance of the use of images of women in tourism adverts. One example is the image found on the website of a large tourism company that is trying to set up in Ceará, which will greatly impact many traditional communities in the local coastal zone from an environmental and socio-cultural point of view.

The company is called ‘Nova Atlântida’ and it displays an image of a female body next to its wording about the tourist attractions. The 1980s and 1990s were important for the north-east of Brazil because tourism gained popularity there and local citizens had the opportunity to make money from it as a result. Investments in infrastructure, tax benefits and a great deal of propaganda where natural beauty became intrinsically associated with images of beautiful and exotic women in Carnival, all helped to boost tourism and made it an important economic factor.

In the 1990s as tourism was getting stronger and consolidating itself even more than before, the north-east, especially places such as Bahia, Pernambuco, Ceará and Rio Grande do Norte, became popular destinations and these states made tourism one of their economic policy priorities. Due to its intensity, commercial sexual exploitation of children became notorious and was initially identified as underage prostitution. It then became an attraction for some tourists, encouraged by the high demand from international and also Brazilian tourists.

It is in this context in the 1990s that the people fighting for children’s rights gained space and visibility, especially after the declaration of the Statute of the Child and Adolescent (ECA) in 1990, which was the result of a lot of campaigning which carried on afterwards as well. From this point onwards one could distinguish various social movements that were gaining ground and adding new importance to the debates surrounding children and young people. People’s intolerance of violent sexual crimes grew and it began to be discussed openly in public and to attract the necessary attention in order to destroy the remaining legal, social and cultural tolerance that was partly responsible for the continued existence of this form of violation of children’s human rights.

This legal power mobilised the Congressional Investigative Commission (Comissões Parlamentares de Inquérito – CPI) and the Brazilian Congress initiated a CPMI (bicameral commission of inquiry) into Child Prostitution in 1993, whose report contributed towards increasing the visibility of the subject and society’s awareness of it. Citizens organised campaigns and events to debate the subject. A significant example of this at a global level was the 1st World Congress against Sexual Exploitation of Children and Adolescents, which took place in Stockholm, Sweden.

In 2000 a large meeting between the government and society took place in Natal with more than 100 organisations present, to set up the National Plan of Action against Sexual Violation against Children and Adolescents, which is a group of policies concerning welfare, prevention and youth protagonism as priorities when formulating public policies. From the 1990s to 2000 tourism became even further consolidated as an important economic factor and equally so was the exploitation linked to it reinforced.

The concentration of revenue, sex tourism and human trafficking for the sex industry takes place within complex and well-organised networks which attack women, children and adolescents. According to a UN report published in 2006, globally around 150 million girls and 73 million boys under 18 have experienced forced sexual intercourse or other forms of sexual violence or exploitation. Sex tourism, framed in the context of the sex industry (which includes the commercialisation of sexual materials, such as pornography and erotic products), demands a specific type of victim, that is most often linked to childhood and youth, seeing as this industry’s tendency is to create concepts of beauty, eroticism and sexuality based on the young body as the ideal in sexual exploitation.

Young bodies become the most sought after in the sex industry and they are terribly exploited as much in internet pornography, films, magazines, as in prostitution and commercial exploitation. Research conducted by the Ceará Prostitute’s Association on prostitutes over the age of 18 revealed that 89% of them had begun working as prostitutes during adolescence, showing evidence of the predominance of youth in prostitution. In the majority of cases, sex tourism involves children and above all adolescents, in an extremely unbalanced situation, both psychologically and financially, seeing as the exploiter is the one with the financial power. Adult prostitution is of course also present in sex tourism, but the demand is mainly for underage bodies.

The Victims

  • The majority of children, adolescents and young people who are exploited are female, showing gender issues as a defining feature of the phenomenon.
  • The majority are of African origin.
  • They belong to the working class.
  • They are poorly educated.
  • They live in the outskirts of cities.
  • Many of the victims come from backgrounds of vulnerability at home or of sexual abuse by a relative.

The Exploiters

According to a study by the WTO (World Tourism Organisation), the tourists who consider sex tourism as part of their trips to Brazil tend to be middle class, between 20 and 40-years-old, and mainly from Italy, Portugal, Holland and North America.